This post is part of a blog tour organised by Random Things Blog Tours. I received a free copy of the book in return for an honest review.
‘Twin sisters Keziah and Tilly Lovell are identical in every way, except that Tilly hasn’t grown a single inch since she was five.
‘Coerced into promoting their father’s quack elixir as they tour the country fairgrounds, at the age of 15 the girls are sold to a mysterious Italian known as “Captain”.
‘Theo is an orphan, raised by his grandfather, Lord Seabrook, a man who has a dark interest in anatomical freaks and other curiosities… particularly the human kind.
‘Resenting his grandson for his mother’s death in childbirth, when Seabrook remarries and a new heir is produced, Theo is forced to leave home without a penny to his name.
‘Theo finds employment in Dr Summerwell’s Museum of Anatomy in London, and here he meets Captain and his theatrical “family” of performers, freaks and outcasts.
‘But it is Theo’s fascination with Tilly and Keziah that will lead all of them into a dark web of deceits, exposing unthinkable secrets and threatening everything they know…’
In The Fascination, by Essie Fox, we get to know various unusual characters as they find ways to thrive in prescriptive, intolerant late-Victorian London.
At the forefront are twins Keziah and Tilly; Keziah is of standard height, while Tilly has dwarfism. When they’re 15, their abusive drunk of a father sells them at a fairground to an Italian musician everyone refers to as Captain.
Captain turns out to be a kindly benefactor. In their new home, Keziah and Tilly also form bonds with Martha, who has a cleft lip and palate, and Aleski, who is extremely hirsute.
While Martha is the resident tailor and keeps house with Keziah, Tilly joins Captain and Aleski on the London stage, making her debut as a fairy in a pantomime. However, her rising star draws the attention of a couple who envisage a less wholesome future for her.
We also follow orphan Theo Miller as he takes up work with a Dr Summerwell in a London anatomy museum and shop, after his hard-hearted grandfather, Lord Seabrook, turfs him out of his grand country home in favour of his new wife and son.
Having briefly met the twins at a fair before, Theo happens to reunite with them when he goes to see the pantomime. But he doesn’t know about the tangled web that binds him, Captain, Dr Summerwell, and Lord Seabrook together, and ends up pulling Tilly and Keziah in as well.
Reading The Fascination was like being transported to another world, infused with both wonder and menace. With gruesome sights, wicked step(grand)mothers, out-and-out villains, and people being stolen away, it has a fairy tale quality, amplifying the simpler story of Snow-White and Rose-Red that is woven through the book.
Right from the beginning, I was drawn in by the plights of Keziah, Tilly, and Theo as innocent victims of tragic circumstances and cruel parental figures. Fox’s descriptions of Lord Seabrook’s hidden collection of creepy curios, and the vardo the twins travel to fairs in with their father and stepmother, are fantastically detailed and vivid.
Similarly, the author does a great job juxtaposing the glamour and riches visible on the surface of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century entertainment industry with the seediness and exploitation that so often lay underneath. This put me in mind of a couple of other books I’ve really enjoyed recently: Clara and Olivia, by Lucy Ashe and Shrines of Gaiety, by Kate Atkinson.
With so many characters – good, bad, and ambiguous – each with a well fleshed-out backstory, there’s always something happening or being revealed to keep you turning the pages (even if at one point I was wanting to yell ‘how have you not realised yet?!’ at a pair who were ignorant of their connection to one another).
I also liked the layers of spookiness added by the dark history of Captain’s house, and Keziah’s emergent gift for fortune-telling.
What’s more, The Fascination is brilliantly queer and extols the benefits of the “found family”. The living arrangements of Captain, Aleski, Martha, Keziah, and Tilly deviate from societal norms and attract the odd assumption about what they’re up to behind closed doors (saying more about the person doing the assuming than about them), and their relationships are harmonious and equitable.
By contrast, the twins’ experiences growing up in a nuclear household were miserable. Theo, meanwhile, received far more affection from household staff, particularly his beloved governess, than from his grandfather (not an uncommon experience for only children in upper/upper middle-class families, as I found out when researching for my thesis), and Lord Seabrook’s new, heir-producing heterosexual relationship pulled what little rug he had from under his feet.
One major way that The Fascination deviates from the fairy tale format is that romance and marriage aren’t the “happily ever after” the characters seek. Most of the heroes are, and stay uncoupled, and the ones that do get together don’t complete each other, because they’re already whole in themselves.
Theo is even coded as being on the asexual spectrum, and the other characters accept this without trying to persuade him otherwise, which is great to see. Additionally, more than one character shows a primarily sensual attraction to Aleski, which I can’t fault them for, given his resemblance to a bear.
The Fascination is a dark and dazzling queer Victorian fairy tale.